Rescuing The Bounty and the U.S. Coast Guard

Posted by at 05:22PM - Comments: (8)

The Bounty had just undergone a refit prior to the sinking.

By now most every Practical Sailor reader is probably aware of the fate of The Bounty, the tall ship of Hollywood movie fame. It sank in stormy seas off Cape Hatteras on Oct. 29, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast. At the time of this writing, the ship’s captain, 63-year-old Robin Walbridge of St. Petersburg, Fla., was still missing at sea. Crewmember Claudene Christian, 42, was pulled from the water, taken ashore, but pronounced dead in the hospital. In all, Coast Guard helicopters airlifted 14 crewmembers from two life rafts. The rescuers arrived on the scene quickly, not long after the famous ship sank below the waves. Some dramatic video footage of the U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers and helicopter crew at work is posted here.

We pray for the ship’s captain and mourn the loss of Christian. This is a terrible, and tragic loss. While many of the facts surrounding the loss of The Bounty are still unknown, and the accident will no doubt come under all kinds of scrutiny, one thing is clear: Fourteen sailors would probably not be alive today were it not for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Of all the missions that the U.S. Coast Guard is engaged in—ranging from drug interdiction to navigation-aid maintenance—search and rescue is its most important, in my mind. But it does not come without cost. The price tag for a search-and-rescue operation like the one launched to save the crew of The Bounty is difficult to gauge. Every rescue entails hidden costs—not just in dollars, but in lives. In March of this year, four Coast Guard officers died while training for a mission similar to the one that saved The Bounty’s crew. Is it worth it? In 2011, the Coast Guard responded to more than 22,000 search-and-rescue cases and saved more than 4,000 lives. It would be hard to argue that dollars spent on search and rescue offer a bad return. But that doesn’t mean they can be squandered.

Next spring, the Coast Guard budget will again come under scrutiny. The proposed fiscal year 2013 Coast Guard budget shaved about $370 million from the previous year, and we can expect more proposed cuts this year. I’m not so concerned about the total cuts to the Coast Guard, but I do care about where these cuts are targeted and how they are implemented.

Rolled into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard is engaged in 11 different missions, each with its own tough challenges. In addition to saving more than 4,000 lives, the Coast Guard inspected over 21,600 shipping containers, interdicted over 2,000 illegal migrants, and prevented 300,000 pounds of illegal drugs and millions of gallons of oil from reaching our shores. Its FY 2013 budget was just shy of $10 billion. With an aging fleet of cutters, it is the epitome of a government agency stretched thin.

But as citizens and sailors, we need to be aware of how our Coast Guard dollars are spent. With such a wide range of missions and stations all over the country, the Coast Guard is an easy target for pork barrel projects. During past budget appropriations hearings on Capitol Hill, committee members promoted pet projects that ranged from ice breakers to learning centers and costly new piers—some of them priorities; others clearly not. Another concern is that the Coast Guard’s new status under the Department of Homeland Security has entangled it in a bureaucratic web that robs it of much-needed autonomy.

And then there is the question of priorities. Is marine safety and search-and-rescue getting the short shrift under the Department of Homeland Security? Already, we’re seeing some expansive vessel monitoring programs clearly aimed at national security being billed as marine safety initiatives.

Next month, we’ll feature an article on the Coast Guard’s early research into search-and-rescue drones, autonomous aircraft similar to those being used in the war in Afghanistan, but redesigned and equipped for search and rescue. It’s an interesting project, still very early in the research and development stage, and I am curious to hear what PS readers think of this type of project, and in a broader sense, how they feel about the future of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Comments (8)

It sank in stormy seas or has sunk in stormy seas. "It sunk" is incorrect. Despite the incorrect grammar, the news is a grim reminder that the oceans have the final say. May Ms Christian and her captain rest in peace.

Posted by: JOHN V | November 6, 2012 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Search for the Captain was called off on Thursday. Our condolences to family and friends.

Posted by: Darrell | November 2, 2012 10:56 PM    Report this comment

From the plot of her track in one of the articles I read last night I suspect onboard conditions dictated his change of course from directly eastward to rather the SW course chosen.
He knew he was sinking and wanted to be within reach of rescue reources.
Hopefully the investigation determines what happened during the refit in Maine that contributed? Something drastic occurred with hull integrity.
That decision to run ahead of the storm rather then lay in port and be battered to death was for the benifit of the Ship. The decision to change course was all about saving the Crew.
Greg Ross

Posted by: Greg R | November 2, 2012 8:37 AM    Report this comment

Once again, our Coast Guard did a magnificent job when called upon and we are all thankful for the 14 lives saved. However, it is absolutely unbelievable that this ship left port on the course that it did in the first place. While a reconstruction of the actual events during the final moments of this tragedy may make for interesting (and even riveting) reading, in this case it is the decision to leave port, not any decisions made after that, where the fault lies. What circumstance could possibly have been so important for the Bounty that it's owner and/or Captain deemed it worth the risk to send this boat with 16 lives anywhere near a hurricane that massive. The fact is, this was a deplorable example of seamanship to even throw of the dock lines given the wealth of weather information for the proposed course at the time.

Posted by: Thomas C | November 1, 2012 9:54 PM    Report this comment

I'm sorry if I offend anyone, but this "incident" was totally avoidable-and a result of 100% human error. Even before weighing, at least one crew member wondered publicly why they were departing with a hurricane on the horizon-almost literally. I have no idea what forces were driving the captain to transit a well predicted storm path-we'll likely never know.

I great sympathy for the crew rescued and the family and friends of Claudene Christian who was not. I recently lost my son in a boarding accident and it really sucks-and much more.

There will be investigations and reports and probably a finger or two pointed, but in the end we are all human and when outside the bounds off immediate "civilization" we generally bear much greater consequences for our errors. Was the Bounty even 1-200 miles further offshore, the story may well have been "all hand lost"

Posted by: William W | November 1, 2012 11:19 AM    Report this comment

Why Bounty was sailing under the menace of Sandy ? The rescued crew storm suits range from coastal or tourist type to polar/ice ones ....

Posted by: Franco L | November 1, 2012 4:00 AM    Report this comment

Ghost Ship S/V Fathome...

Boy oh Boy does this incredible event sound familiar....Windjammer S/V Fathome sinks in hurricane Oct 1998. Owner sends her out to ride out hurricane Mithch with 31 crew ship and all lost.

Posted by: Unknown | October 31, 2012 1:48 PM    Report this comment

The stay-aloft time of some of the unmanned drones is impressive, and the technology for spotting things goes far beyond the "mark 1 eyeball" that we think of with CG planes flying SAR. That makes it worth examining for CG needs.

On the other hand, at some point people will need to fly out in helicopters or thru heavy seas in ships to actually get the people it finds. One does not negate the need for the other.

Rick Fricchione
S/V Black Diamond
Portsmouth, RI.

Posted by: RICK F | October 31, 2012 12:31 PM    Report this comment

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